Wednesday, October 31, 2007


He stands on the grassy verge, just outside the perimeter of the grocery store parking lot. Tall and skeletal in stature, his dirty clothes literally hanging on his bony frame.

His hair is long and matted, his beard equally so. What is visible of his face is weathered, leathered and brown.

He stands here in all weathers, in the light and in the dark. Sometimes he holds a card which I've never been able to read, but I already know that it says 'Homeless, please help, God Bless'.

When I see him, my stomach tightens, gripped with a mixture of confusing feelings. How did he get to be this way? And, what is my responsibility towards him?

I have never reached out to this man and for that I feel guilty, but my fear outweighs the feelings of guilt most days.

He is one of many panhandlers I see, in various situations, regularly at busy intersections. Some I want to cry for. Others I want to scream at to go look for a job because they look plenty healthy and fit to me. Others still I want to call the cops on because before my very eyes they straighten up from their half naked, bent over position, set down their sign which says 'please help, disabled Vet.',pull on a shirt, walk when they'd previously hobbled, to their bicycle and cycle off when their 'begging shift' is over.

I struggle with the question 'what am I supposed to do for these people?' Are we not taught that we should help those less fortunate than ourselves? But, this is America - and while drug and alcohol abuse is not unknown in Ireland - it's not as prevalent, nor as obvious as it sometimes is here. And so, afraid that these people could be hopped up on any combination of substances, or that any assistance I offer will be used to procure more of said substances, I keep my windows closed, my gaze straight ahead and I do nothing. I contribute to the collection each week at Mass, and that is the only way I have salved my conscience thus far, on the understanding that that donation will be used in some way to help those less fortunate.

The grocery store beggar makes me think much more than any other I've seen. Perhaps because it's not that far from our cosy home in our nice neighbourhood with the great golf club across the road. Maybe it's because I pass him in a big comfortable car with my well fed children safely cocooned in the back. I find myself wondering if he has, or had a family. Is he a victim of a series of unhappy circumstances that have led him to this? If he's brought this on himself? Is he an alcoholic, or a drug addict? If he had a job, a home, people who cared. He looks so lonely, beaten, pathetic and absolutely destitute.

I have been thinking of him almost constantly since yesterday afternoon when I saw him again. This time he was standing a little way away from his grocery store post, on another grassy verge. Surrounded by two Sherrif's cruisers, he was handcuffed, and a lady Deputy was donning latex gloves, presumably to search him. I don't know what he did. If he had an altercation with passersby? Was this part of their attempt to 'move him along'. Was he high on something?

All I know is that my stomach is again tight with those confusing and uncomfortable feelings. I am afraid to reach out to panhandlers. I don't know what kind of reaction I'll get, I don't want to feed an already destructive habit by helping fund it but I know I must do SOMETHING. And, I will - I just need to figure out how.


Deborah said...

I know exactly how you feel Annie. Exactly.

You've been gone too long though! Not a toilet in Dublin that doesn't have UV lighting because of the junkies, even in swanky restaurants and hotels. Cocaine is bog standard fodder for middle to upper class working people. Not a day goes by when you don't hear about a drug bust. (In fact the gardai narcotic team are quite impressive!) It's very very scary!

Jennifer aka Binky Bitch said...

I never know what to do, either. I want to help, but I don't want to give someone money to go buy drugs or liquor. I've thought of going thru McD's drive-thru and picking up a few cheeseburgers to hand out, but I don't even do that.

Wonder what the guy did? At least in jail you get fed.

wakeupandsmellthecoffee said...

My stepbrother did reach out to just such a person. He offered him a job and shelter if he would go into rehab. The guy, an alcoholic, preferred to live in the woods drinking sterno to getting himself straightened out. There is nothing you can do for someone who will not help himself.

My stepbrother's wife has gone through a McDonald's and bought a Happy Meal for just such a person. For her generosity, she got told off because what he really wanted was money for drink or drugs.

When I lived in New York, I used to see women with babies get on subways begging for money for food (as if). In Paris I've seen what appeared to be Muslim women position themselves outside the Eiffel Tower, babies at breast, to beg off the tourists. Maybe I'm hard, but I don't have much sympathy for these people.

laurie said...

this will sound harsh, but there's nothing you should or could do.

there are myriad agencies out there that help these people. many of the ones you see, actively begging, are looking for money for drink or drugs.
(most shelters won't let them spend the night if they're drunk.)

i walk past easily a dozen of these folks every noonhour on the Nicollet Mall--they sit with cardboard signs that say "homeless--god bless" and "dealing with kidney disease" and "no money, no home."

it's hard to walk past. but there's help if they want it. just not from me.

a friend of mine makes a point of giving food to the beggars, but never money. trouble is, food is not usually waht they're after.

Annie said...

Deborah, I think you're right - maybe I'm in denial and affected by the US Utopian view of Ireland these days! I guess I'm just not used to seeing someone who's obviously stoned out of their minds any time I've been out and about at home.

Good Point Jennifer.

wuastc, laurie, I've heard these anecdotes and reasonings before - and I know you're right - it doesn't stop my heart feeling heavy because underneath all that filth, addiction, disease whatever you want to call it - there is a person. Someone who was some mother's child and for whom things went very, very wrong -whether that be at their own hands or otherwise. I suppose I just need to be grateful - say there but for the Grace of God go I, and my family.

Pgoodness said...

You should do exactly what you feel comfortable with. It's a hard situation, but not doing something because there are agencies to deal with this sort of thing isn't the answer either. Those agencies aren't perfect (Jen @ One Plus Two can tell you all about it)

I've given food to people with signs asking for food - they've been more than thankful. I generally don't carry cash, but if I do, I'll give a little. Here's the thing - you're giving - it's up to them what they do with it, and honestly, once you give, none of your business. Hope that makes sense and doesn't sound mean...

Listen to your instincts - if you want to do something, then DO.

andi said...

Well said, Annie.

This is so sad. I see a lot of this here with our crazy economy lately. I'm noticing an ever-widening gap between rich and poor and I'm not sure what to do to help.

I think it's always worthwhile to give to charities who help the homeless (shelters, soup kitchens, etc), rather than giving money directly to the people on the streets. That, or buying them food if you're uncomfortable giving out cash.

Momo Fali said...

Trust your instincts. If you don't feel right about it, there's a reason for it, and you shouldn't do it. Your heart is in the right place...there's no doubting that.

Mom Chatter said...

Wonderful post! I have gone through drive-thrus only to pass my food onto one or two to these people, but never money. It is a touchy situation and makes my heart ache as well. They can get the help, but for some of them it IS a matter of pride. Many cannot be helped... others can be... and still others don't REALLY want to be. It's tough to determine which is which. Just go with your gut and do what you can when you feel comfortable.

Iota said...

You have a lovely soft heart.

I've heard it said many times that it counts for something just to treat such people as a human being - even if that is just to make eye contact instead of looking the other way, or to say "I'm sorry I don't have any cash on me" (although how likely is that?) Harder in a car than on foot.

It's a hard one.

Trenches of Mommyhood said...

Jen at One Plus Two ( could answer this question for you with eloquence and grace.

jen said... heart hurts at a few of the responses here. Being homeless shouldn't mean one has to give up basic human rights. A shelter (and I run some so I can say this freely) sometimes causes that to happen with rules and regulations necessary to manage an enormous street population but isn't an optimal solution.

I've never (and I've met thousands) a person who would choose the street over a home. Not a shelter, but a home. And this country hasn't developed new public housing under this administration. Blaming the victim is easy, but incorrect. We all struggle in our lives and poverty, mental illness and the loss of hope makes it even tougher.

Alleviating suffering should be the goal for all of us.

I give money when asked. I am not sure why I would refuse money to someone - a strange moral highroad to take as we fill up our tanks and allow our taxes to pay for a war.

Lovely post, Anne.